The national prizewinning George W. Hewlett High School science research program has been built with brainpower over the past 16 years and funded on a shoestring budget: Students make their own incubators, put plant samples in recycled cups and use equipment purchased on eBay.
The driving force behind the effort is science teacher Terrence Bissoondial, a native of British Guyana who holds a doctoral degree in molecular biology and follows his students on a three-year track, pushing them to answer the most complex of scientific questions.
"He's not happy with us unless we actually do something that is worth him being happy," said Priyanka Wadgaonkar, 16. "And if he was happy with us -- we were on cloud nine."
Wadgaonkar, JiaWen Pei, 17, and Zainab Mahmood, 17, all seniors, last week won the $100,000 team grand prize in the Siemens Competition for Math, Science & Technology. Their project, titled "The Isolation and Characterization of an Ozone Responsive Stress Related Protein (OZS) in Ceratopteris richardii," found that plants with multiple copies of genes that help with ozone tolerance are more resistant to environmental impacts.
Last year, another trio from Hewlett won the $100,000 in scholarships for research involving a plant protein with the potential for fighting cancer. The 1,033-student high school in western Nassau County has produced the nation's most Siemens semifinalists and finalists in the past couple of years, and last week's win marked the first time a school has won back-to-back team grand prizes in the prestigious contest's 15-year history.
School goes it alone
Most teams in such competitions partner with universities or research laboratories. At Hewlett, the research program is included in the science department's overall budget.
"This is history in the making," said Bissoondial, who has been with the district since 1999. "It showed that you can be within a high school with minimum budget and still achieve unprecedented results."
The winning project was conceived and conducted entirely in the second-floor classroom of the high school, where plant samples were grown in plastic Solo cups and water samples were collected in empty plastic drinking bottles. Students, using plywood and duct tape, made the incubators to give the plants light, and tissue boxes were incorporated into the experiments. The students paid for an ozone generator they bought on eBay for less than $100.
In this modest technological environment, this year's winning team conducted research that has implications for effects on plants from drought and pollution to salt and bacteria, potentially lessening crop losses.
Judges at the Siemens' National Finals, held in Washington, D.C., called the project a "major biological finding."
Bissoondial noted the benefit that is realized when students construct their own equipment.
"This is one of the things that makes them do so well," he said. "They really understand their project."
The Hewlett students' path to triumph started in a ninth-grade class called Introduction to Research. There were no textbooks. The freshmen spent that year poring over thick scientific journals and learning laboratory techniques.
"It was a gradual process," Mahmood explained. "We were reading articles and finding out about environmental stress."
Any student can take class
That class is open to anyone; Hewlett has an open enrollment policy. However, the students also must enroll in an honors biology class.
The research intro class usually starts out with about 36 students, Bissoondial said, but attendance falls as the years go by. In sophomore year, the students fashion their research question. The topic is limited to plants, because that is the only matter that realistically can be studied in the classroom setting.
Last year's winning Hewlett team -- William Gil, Jeremy Appelbaum and Allen Shin -- said Bissoondial's hands-on approach and detailed explanations left them better prepared for college. Bissoondial would grill them about every aspect of their work to ensure they were ready for a judge's questions.
Ryan Kenny, a Hewlett senior who was on a team that won the best-of-category award in plant sciences at last spring's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, said Bissoondial "didn't want you to take the easy way out."
"You had to be the most prepared," said Kenny, 17, who won the Intel prize in May with students Samantha DiSalvo and Amy Vitha, also now seniors. "He would meet with us on weekends, go through our projects with us and make sure we knew every facet of it."
But Bissoondial's schedule has been stretched in recent years. Since 2011, the district has eliminated two science teaching positions and Bissoondial has been teaching five classes, leaving him less time for project development.
The school will not have a team ready for the next two years of the Siemens Competition, he said, though there is a freshman class now that could develop a project by its junior or senior year.
Committed to program
Principal Theodore Fulton, who is in his first year at the school, said he is committed to having the program run at full strength come this fall, with Bissoondial having more time to devote to it.
"The district has committed to providing the time and resources for Dr. Bissoondial to be able to develop and produce projects in the upcoming school year," Fulton said.
Joyce Bisso, superintendent of the Hewlett-Woodmere public schools, said the Board of Education recognizes the program's great value.
"We have done our best to maintain it," she said. "The key is, it is not enough to maintain it -- you have to improve it, and it has to evolve."
The district is looking to expand the program to eventually include engineering research, said John Kranz, the district's science research coordinator. The district also has partnered with SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and is working to develop a partnership with Columbia University in Manhattan, as well as continuing the in-house program.
Pei hopes other students take advantage of the research opportunities offered at her high school.
"We didn't think we would get this far," she said. "But we did." With Jo Napolitano